Back Together Again (CousteauX)

Currently on heavy rotation round our end, anyone who stumbles into Loosehandlebars HQ is made to listen, is a new video from 2 friends who have not created music together for some time. From their earlier records we knew that when the songs of Davey Ray Moor are matched with the vocals of Liam McKahey something very special occurs, So, before you read on, the new track from CousteauX is just a click away…do your ears a favour right.

 

 

It’s been 10 years since “Nova Scotia”,the 3rd & final LP from Cousteau. The band’s distinctive, often dark, torch songs had gained them an international reputation if not the wider audience they deserved. Cousteau were modern cabaret , sophisticated & sharp like Sinatra was, the resident band in that after-hours club of your dreams. I was biased, before Cousteau Liam & I had worked & played out together, sharing some of the best days & nights that it is possible to have. The fact that his strong, assured voice & presence made him an ideal frontman was a delightful bonus. On our one meeting Davey & I spoke of Burt Bacharach & Jimmy Webb, master tunesmiths who made listening not only easy but sublime. With Liam’s voice to write for Davey’s ambition was high & his aim was true. There were songs when the band hit the bullseye smack dab in the middle.

 

So now, 10 years on, we have an added Roman numeral & CousteauX. “The Innermost Light”, written by Davey with Carl Barat, formerly off of the Libertines, is from a new LP by the pair. It’s a long distance relationship, Davey is a university lecturer on the business of the music business in the UK while Liam lives in Canberra, Australia. His group, Liam McKahey & the Bodies, made a great LP, “Black Vinyl Heart” (try “Dirty Mind”), a potent mix of Blues, Country & Morricone-inspired mariachi.That voice had matured, with, if possible, a greater range & depth. Davey heard the record & knew he had songs that needed his old singer to do them justice. “The Innermost Light” is a very dramatic 4 minutes. Liam has been compared to Scott Walker & I’ve always heard the richness of Lou Rawls, no higher praise, in there. He really has a fine instrument & there are more of these songs around the World Wide Web.

 

 

You can find “Shelter” on the band’s website, www.cousteaux.com & on their F-book page, where they also feature Liam’s artwork & point you to the places where you can buy both the new & the old stuff. The album should be available soon &, so far, there has just been the one gig at the Blue Note in Milan. I know plenty of folk who are so pleased to see these guys making music together again. It’s music made by & for grown ups & it deserves a wide audience which can bring them together for more gigs to showcase their talents. Man, I should have gone to Milan !

 

 

Whatever deal Liam made with whomever it was a 2 for 1 bargain. There’s not only the voice but an infuriating anti-ageing thing going on there. However he’s coming up to that landmark for all parents where he is no longer the coolest person in his own home. The wonderfully named Teen Jesus & the Jean Teasers are 5 school friends from Canberra who include Liam’s daughter Scarlett on guitar. Inspired by the Indie rock of their big sisters’ (or their Mums’) record collections they have the same direct energetic approach as fellow Aussie Courtney Barnett & the 2 tracks on Soundcloud are a great pop noise. “Guessing Game”, whether by accident or design, has more than a touch of Siouxsie & the Banshees & there can never be too much of that around. These young women are 15 & 16 & have got it going on. Scarlett, Anna, Jaida, Neve & Pip, you rock ladies, let’s hear more of this good Powerpop.

Ry Cooder Put Me On It (Part 2)

Before Ry Cooder released his first solo LP in 1970 he had an already established reputation as an outstanding exponent of the bottleneck guitar. His work with Taj Mahal in the Rising Sons, on Captain Beefheart’s “Safe As Milk” & sessions for the Rolling Stones, most notably with Jagger’s “Memo From Turner” from the “Performance” soundtrack, marked him as an eloquent young stylist & one to watch. The “Ry Cooder” LP showed him to be a student & an archivist of marginalised American music from the early twentieth century. Side 2 includes songs by Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Arthur “Blind” Blake, Sleepy John Estes & Blind Willie Johnson, all fine Blues names. I was a student too, I knew about these guys. There was another blind musician who was new to me…

 

 

Image result for blind alfred reedAlfred Reed was born blind in 1880 & learned to play the violin on the farm in West Virginia where he grew up. He played at fairs, churches, on street corners, selling the sheet music of his compositions. It was 1927 before he recorded any tracks, 4 in July, 5 more in December. Two years later a couple of sessions produced 12 more sides & that’s all there is. “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”, heavily re-shuffled by Ry, using only 3 of the 8 verses, is a topical protest song recorded just a week after Black Tuesday, the Wall St Crash & the onset of the Depression. Reed was a conservative Christian, “Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls ?”, a warning that a woman’s short hair is against His will, is now anachronistic & funny. His colloquial, unvarnished lyrics hit the spot & his lament for the working man, “can hardly get our breath, taxed and schooled and preached to death”, certainly still resonates. Reed’s brief collected work, accompanied by his son Arville, includes more of this good country roots stuff & is certainly worth checking.

 

Ry Cooder was not finished with Alfred Reed. In 1976 he recorded “Always Lift Him Up”, a lovely, sympathetic lyric, & last year he was performing “You Must Unload”, more Appalachian wisdom concerning the road to Heaven for the wealthy churchgoer. “How Can…” has remained a centrepiece of his live sets, sometimes extended to a 10 minute showcase of fine musicality. In 1987 the noted documentarist Les Blank pointed his cameras at the Moula Banda Rhythm Aces for a version which makes space available for the keyboard of Van Dyke Parks & the singular accordion of my good friend (well, I spent one evening in his company) Flaco Jimenez as well as Cooder’s inimitable guitar work.

 

 

Cooder’s 2nd LP “Into the Purple Valley” continued his excavations of the Blues & the Dustbowl while incorporating a couple of Caribbean classics. “How Can You Keep On Moving” & “Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Us All” were both on the 1959 LP “Songs From the Depression” by folk trio the New Lost City Ramblers which also featured 2 songs by Reed including “How Can a Poor Man…”. “Denomination Blues”, a direct, mocking commentary on 57 varieties of Christianity, was a perfect candidate for revival. “Well, the Primitive Baptists they believe that you can’t go to heaven ‘less you wash your feet & that’s all”. Funny because it’s true ? I couldn’t say. This song was my introduction to the unique talent of Washington Phillips.

 

Phillips was born in 1880 too, down in Teague Texas. He was a jack-leg preacher, looking for a temporary church gig or delivering street corner sermons. Like Blind Alfred Reed his only recordings, just 15 songs, were made between 1927 & 1929.I guess that his music is gospel-blues & he had some success with “Take Your Burden to the Lord”, a popular hymn. There is no supplication to the spirit of the Lord, moral homilies are delivered in a calm, mature, assured voice. I am not the most religious of men but I’m always open to advice about Life & how to live it from those who have knocked about a bit.From his lyrics Washington Phillips seems to have been a smart man & there’s an eerie beauty about “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” that just enchants me out of my secular socks whenever I listen to it. Then there’s the mysterious matter of his instrument of choice…

 

 

Image result for washington phillipsWell, there it is in the one of the surviving photos of Mr Phillips. The technical term is, I believe, 2 big old zithers welded together. It has been variously identified as a dulceola/dolceola, a celestaphone for the right hand, a phonoharp for the left. It does seem that the original instruments were intended to be played with a hammer but Wash chose to strum & pluck them. Whatever he called it the effect is individual & wonderful, providing a gentle, floating accompaniment to his lyrics. Gospel & Blues for sure, in this melodic, mature music I hear the roots of modern popular music & that is something.

 

Ry Cooder agreed & in 1974 he & producer Russ Titelman re-worked Phillips’ “You Can’t Stop A Tattler” into the classy & classic “The Tattler”. We’ll end with that & then you can get on to the Y-tube & discover more about 2 great musicians who deserve a wider hearing.

 

 

 

 

Leave Him Alone Lennon Or I’ll Tell Them All The Truth About You (Richard Lester)

Richard Lester was in the right place at the right time just too many times for it to purely down to his luck. He was a bright kid, graduating from college at 19. Within a year of becoming a stage hand at a Philadelphia TV station he was directing live shows. That sounds like the fast track but television was a new thing, the whole operation still seat-of-the-pants. If you said you could direct then you got to have a go, if you didn’t screw up then you got the job. In 1953, still only 21, he moved to the UK where his US experience & his ability to talk a good fight found him work with the new commercial station. Lester has said that he wanted to direct films so that he could shoot a second take. Whatever, the films he made in the 1960s retain the spontaneity & vivacity of someone with a liking for pointing a camera & seeing what happens.

 

The Goons were THE deal in 1950s British comedy. “Goonery” was a tangle of surreal wordplay, Army barrack room disregard for authority & the iconoclastic genius of Spike Milligan. The trio (Milligan, Peter Sellers & Harry Secombe) were looking to move from radio to TV & cinema. Richard Lester was the American, the outsider, with a developed & perverse visual sense who helped to do that. You know how Monty Python had Terry Gilliam…exactly like that. There were a couple of small British films, one for Walter Shenson who was to produce a film that the world & their teenage daughter was waiting for. John Lennon was a major fan of the Goons, he knew who Richard Lester was. The director was in the best place at the best time & got the job of his life.

 

 

“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) had to be a lot of things to a lot of people. United Artists may have wanted a cheap, quickly made film to cash-in on this temporary Beatlemania. Fans & their money were easily parted but there was a fascination with the personalities of 4 young Liverpudlians who made the almost irresistible music. Lester’s film contributed to the Mop Top iconography, presenting sanitized characterisations of each Beatle. It did a whole lot more & did it in the correct style. “A Hard Day’s Night” is a Day In The Life mockumentary, black & white, expeditious. There are nods to the French New Wave, the music video is invented before our very eyes for the best music around. The humour is gentle & knowing whether from the Fab Four or the excellent support cast of comedy actors. Oh & Paul’s Grandad (the incomparable Wilfred Brambell) is “very clean”. The film was a great success. I loved it as a young boy & over 50 years later it still rates 99% over at Rotten Tomatoes.

 

So England was swinging like a pendulum do & Richard Lester was helping out because we were so busy. Before he directed “Help”, the Beatles as an international phenomenon, in colour, on location & a little too zany, he won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with “The Knack…& How to Get It”, a satire on the new sexual morality since the death of Queen Victoria in 1960 (© Spike Milligan). “The Knack”, though dated, is the quintessential British Mod movie. It’s stylish & energetic without making too much sense & stars Rita Tushingham, our kitchen sink princess. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1966) was a little too busy, a musical-comedy that could use more of both. Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers &, in his final appearance, Buster Keaton are three good reasons to see the film.

 

In 1966 John Lennon gave some of his time & more of his hair to play Musketeer Gripweed in “How I Won the War”, an anti-war movie made with sharp wit & fast pace. “Petulia” (1968) with Julie Christie was made in the US & is very highly rated. It’s so long since I’ve seen this film…I’ll get back to you on this.

 

 

“The Bed Sitting Room” (1969) is, according to the Wiki,  an absurdist, post-apocalyptic, satirical comedy…it’s even better than that sounds ! Adapted from the play by Spike Milligan & John Antrobus, the 20 British survivors of a blink & what just happened nuclear war attempt to preserve a degree of the old ways on the giant rubbish tip they are left with while dealing with unlikely & surprising mutations. The script is hilarious, the filming inventive & the cast is perfect. There are classical actors, Ralph Richardson, in the title role, Michael Hordern (I saw his King Lear that very year) & Mona Washbourne, a couple of Goons, stalwart comedy character actors including Arthur Lowe & Roy Kinnear & there’s Rita Tushingham. The show is almost stolen by Marty Feldman (Nurse Arthur) while Peter Cook & Dudley Moore were never funnier on film than they are here. “The Bed Sitting Room” is the bridge between the Goons & Monty Python, thought-provoking, very silly & from the top rank of British comedy movies. God Save Mrs Ethel Shroake !

 

In the next decade Lester’s budgets got bigger. “The Three Musketeers” (1973) became a bit too much of a comedy-action epic & was eventually released as 2 separate films. The starry cast were surprised by “The 4 Musketeers” (1974) as they had only been paid for the one movie ! “Juggernaut”, a shipboard disaster movie, didn’t really cut it & the following year’s “Royal Flash”, starring Malcolm McDowell, so disappointed writer George MacDonald Fraser that he blocked any further cinematic adaptations of his character.Richard going to Hollywood was inevitable but while these films were accomplished & entertaining, the individuality & vibrancy of his earlier work was diluted. By 1976 he was back on it & his next 2 releases are certainly a return to form.

 

 

In “Robin & Marion” (1976), our outlaw hero returns to England wearied by 20 years of full-on crusading. The Sheriff of Nottingham is still set in his evil ways & the verdant venturer is not about to walk away from a fight. Then, of course, the love of his life, Maid Marion, is still hanging out with the forest folk. Post-James Bond Sean Connery chose his film roles well & his gnarled knight schools Costner, Crowe or any of the other men in tights. The final showdown between Connery & Robert Shaw (the Sheriff), tough guys going at it right, is classy mid-70s cinema. Such a masculine Robin Hood needs a worthy Marion. The film’s coup was to persuade a great star to return to the movies after almost a decade away. Audrey Hepburn was no longer Holly Golightly but the camera still loved her. Her strong, beautiful even luminous Maid completes a lovely, mature, romantic film. I saw it again last week & absolutely enjoyed it just as much as 40 years ago.

 

OK, that’s three very good films so no room here for “The Ritz” (1976), an update on the screwball that gets it right. It’s a 1970s American comedy from the same top shelf as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks & Neil Simon. Lester had a continuing relationship with the producers of the musketeer movies who had moved on to the “Superman” franchise. The first film, starring Christopher Reeve, was a major success & when director Richard Donner was unavailable to complete the follow-up Lester re-shot “Superman II” (1980) & directed “…III” (the one with Richard Pryor). This was big box office stuff but there was not much more to come. The Musketeers were reunited for “The Return of…” (1989) which went straight to cable in the US & the Beatle connection got him the gig for “Get Back” (1991), a McCartney concert film.

 

Richard Lester’s films have not always aged well but they retain the energy & imagination of the 1960s. He worked with some major talents & made a major contribution to transferring their abilities on to the big screen. The 3 films I have highlighted here are of the highest quality. The others are pretty much a blast too.

 

 

 

Soul Man On Ice (Jerry Butler)

In the mid-1950s in Cabrini-Green on the North side of Chicago 2 school friends, part of the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, were looking to get serious about their music. Jerry Butler was 2 years older than Curtis Mayfield but Curtis came along when Jerry hooked up with the Roosters, a doo-wop group from Chattanooga Tennessee. In 1958, the group now known as Jerry Butler & the Impressions, Mayfield still only 16 years old, made the US Top 20 with their first record “For Your Precious Love”. Butler, who co-wrote the hit, delivers a dramatic, heartfelt vocal which belies his teenage years. They were young men who got it right the first time & were encouraged that their creativity in writing & performance would find an audience. There was just one more 45 from this group before Jerry became a solo act. Over the following 20 years Jerry Butler’s name on the record became a guarantee of quality & excellence.

 

Like his contemporaries, Sam Cooke & Marvin Gaye, Butler aspired to the LP sales & supper club cabaret success of Nat King Cole. His first solo LP is heavy on the orchestral & chorale arrangements. On signing to Vee Jay he got back with Curtis. One of the 4 songs they wrote together, “He Will Break Your Heart” put him in the Top 10. Jerry recorded the original version of “Make It Easy On Yourself” with Burt Bacharach. In the UK the Walker Brothers nicked the hit but, for me, Butler is definitive. The standards & the ballads were assured, the danceable Chicago Soul from Mayfield/Butler sounded great & they made a most acceptable mix.

 

 

When Curtis placed a higher priority on his own group, the Impressions, Jerry’s LPs played a little safe. A sweetheart Soul duet of “Let It Be Me” with Betty Everett was a smash.”The Soul Goes On” is a collection of covers. His style had less grit than the new Memphis Soul but Jerry Butler knew where the action was. He & Otis Redding wrote “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” together & that song is about as good as it gets.

 

A Philadelphia DJ dubbed Jerry “The Ice Man”. When he was matched with upcoming production team Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff they ran with it & “The Ice Man Cometh” (1968) was his biggest selling LP. This is commercial Pop-Soul at its best, with many of the elements that would make the producers so successful in the near future. The lyrics are mature & emotional, the songs packed with hooks to catch your ear. Five singles were released from the LP, three more from the following “Ice On Ice”. Seven of these eight made the R&B Top 10.

 

 

I carried a cassette collection of these 45s around for years. It’s a tough call to include only one of them here. “Never Give You Up”, “Hey, Western Union Man”, the fantastic “Lost”, it’s a list…3 minute dramas, not a second wasted. “Only The Strong Survive”, the most successful of all, gets the shout because I still find the simple guitar figure under Jerry’s intro, before the big chorus & the sweeping strings, to be irresistible. Gamble & Huff produced 15 Gold singles, 22 Gold albums. In 2008 they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & it was Jerry Butler, a member since 1991, who stepped up to do the honours.

 

In 1970 Gamble & Huff went off to do their own thing with Philadelphia International records. Jerry’s old spar Curtis was busy with his own label, Curtom but the rest of the Chicago crew were still around. “One on One” is an LP shared with Gene Chandler, a million seller with “Duke of Earl” in 1962, another who had benefitted from Curtis Mayfield’s songwriting skills & back on the scene with a “Groovy Situation”. Black music was getting all funked up. Gene & Jerry take it to the street on  “Ten & Two (Take This Woman Off The Corner)” , a busy version of James Spencer’s original which deserved a wider hearing. The subject matter, pimps & prostitutes, was possibly a little too strong for radio & for fans of the singers’ lighter output in the past decade.

 

 

The ponderously titled  “…Sings Assorted Sounds With The Aid Of Assorted Friends & Relatives” employed the same musicians, arranger Donnie Hathaway, brother Billy Butler & backing singer Barbara Lee Eager. The New Thing is incorporated but Jerry’s style was not going to change too much. He & his associates had been making records for a long time & they knew what worked for them. At the time Curtis Mayfield was recording the coolest original soundtrack to a movie ever. “Superfly” confirmed his membership of the new Soul aristocracy, writing, performing & selling millions of their own LPs. I would not claim that “…Assorted…” belongs in such company but it’s a classic of mature Chicago Soul. The opening track “How Can We Lose It” sounds like a hit to me & sets a standard which is matched by what follows.

 

Jerry continued to record on Mercury records then, in the Disco years, with Motown before returning to Gamble & Huff. There were more duets with Barbara Lee Eager & with Thelma Houston & enough quality from this period to decorate another one of these posts. In 1970 he & brother Billy appeared on US TV. They went back to “I Stand Accused”, a song they wrote together & released in 1964 on the same single as “Need To Belong”. Now that’s a small vinyl disc that’s worth having around & so is this one-off, intimate, informal version.

 

 

Jerry Butler is still around. By all accounts what you see, a stylish, dignified, articulate man, is what you get. Still in Chicago, he has served as an elected commissioner of Cook County since the 1980s. When he performs his great hits the pride & pleasure he takes is transmitted to his audience. It’s 60 years now since he & Curtis hung out at Wells High School working out how to capture a moment of emotion in a simple, memorable pop song. Those young boys were into something good back then. As styles & taste changed they continued to finesse their skills while never forgetting why & where they started out.

That Girl Could Sing (Ooh Betty !)

Very little is known about Betty James. She was in her 40s, singing in Baltimore clubs with her husband as guitarist & musical director, when, in 1961, she was offered the chance to record by the New York based label Cee Jay.Her song was a hit in Pittsburgh & the track was picked up by Chess Records. 55 years later “I’m a Little Mixed Up” abides as a classic good enough to rank with all the other ones to emerge from 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

 

 

There’s both kinds of music here, the Rhythm & the Blues with little embellishment to  a straight ahead 12 bar structure. Ms James’ vocal is urban & urbane, neither Blues shouting nor Gospel pleading. The guitar part, whether played by Mr James or by studio guy Tarheel Slim, is a loose, insistent, infectious delight. The record gained some attention in Modernist dance clubs with an ear for good American music. My knees & hips are no longer what they were but I’m still a cool jerk attempting an approximation of the Twist whenever I hear this tune. The following year Betty sang “I’m Not Mixed Up Anymore”. There was one more single for Chess, another released as Nadine Renaye & those 8 tracks are all we have. Listening to “I’m a Little Mixed Up” is a fine way to spend 3 minutes.

 

 

Betty Harris started in New York too. She was just in from Florida when she auditioned for producer Bert Berns with a measured, impassioned version of Bert’s hit for Solomon Burke “Cry To Me”. The subsequent release was a Top 30 national hit in 1963 and the following year there were 2 more 45s on the Jubilee label. The record buying public & American radio stations were pre-occupied with the British Invasion in 1964 & Betty was unable to catch that wave. She signed a new deal with Sansu Records in New Orleans.

 

Sansu was a new label started by partners Marshall Sehorn & Allen Toussaint. It was an opportunity for composer/arranger/producer Toussaint to run his own studio operation & Betty’s “What a Sad Feeling” was the first track to be released. It’s a perfect sweeping Pop-Soul ballad, an update of Toussaint’s earlier work with Irma Thomas. There were to be 10 singles by Betty Harris for Sansu, “Nearer to You” was an almost-hit. She came down to New Orleans to add her vocal to tracks created by the master & his house band who were to become the Meters. There’s a private number on a duet with the great James Carr & a shared credit with Lee Dorsey for the infectious floor-filler “Love Lots of Lovin'”. Toussaint produced over 30 singles for the label, taking the rhythms & melodies of the New Orleans tradition & moving them forward.

 

For Betty’s last single in 1969 everything the Sansu crew did was gonna be Funky. “There’s a Break in the Road” is a fantastic one-off. On his “Yes We Can” LP Lee Dorsey was given great songs with similar New Orleans funk pyrotechnics.   It’s a pity that there was no LP made with Allen Toussaint but their collaboration makes Ms Harris a contender for the Soul Queen of New Orleans belt. I have it on good authority (the Internet, so it must be true) that the featured funky drummer here is James Black from Eddie Bo’s group. As James showed on “Hook & Sling (Part 2)” his groove was quite a show-stealer in 1969. Betty made little money from her records & in 1970 she retired from music for 25 years to be with her family. Her 28 track legacy is impressive.

 

 

With 3 being, as you know, the magic number there is room for only one more Betty today.In contention is Betty Everett who shoop-shooped to an international hit with “It’s in His Kiss”, recorded a sweet LP of duets with Jerry “the Iceman” Butler & hit the heights with the atmospheric “Getting Mighty Crowded”. If  Betty Wright had only recorded “Clean Up Woman” & “Shoorah, Shoorah” (Toussaint again) her reputation would be high.It’s Bettye with an “e” who makes the cut. A recording artist for over 50 years, who only last year received a Grammy nomination for her latest LP.

 

In 1962, just 16 years old, Bettye Lavette’s first record, “My Man is a Loving Man” was a hit. She toured with the stars of the day, had a spell with the James Brown Revue & recorded for a couple of local Detroit labels. “Do Your Duty” a direct tasty plateful  of Memphis Soul Stew was recorded with the Dixie Flyers & when she signed with Atlantic they sent her to make an LP in Alabama with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Things must have been looking & sounding good for Ms Lavette when “Child of the Seventies” was completed but the major label disagreed & the LP was shelved. 2 singles from the sessions, a Soul take on Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” & an emotional version of Joe Simon’s “Your Turn to Cry” only added to the legend. It would be almost 30 years before we got to hear the whole shebang. Just one click will get you her cover of Free’s “The Stealer”, confirming that a cloth-eared someone at Atlantic made a big mistake.

 

 

While Bettye’s recording career became more sporadic her range & versatility led her to the touring company of the musical “Bubbling Brown Sugar”. European interest in that lost album instigated a revival & she was ready for the 21st century. “A Woman Like Me” (2003), made with producer Dennis Walker (Ted Hawkins, Robert Cray, B.B. King), is a modern, mature Soul-Blues collection. As well as her fine voice, one of the keys to her new success was a shrewd choice of material. 2005’s “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” used songs written by female composers while “Interpretations” (2010) found nuance & depth in British Rock classics. The misty eyes of Roger Daltrey & Pete Townshend as Bettye performs a stunning “Love Reign O’er Me” in tribute to the Who is a lovely sight. Ms Lavette returned to Muscle Shoals for “The Scene of the Crime” (2007), more cool covers backed by the Drive-By Truckers. The original, autobiographical “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye Lavette)” is co-written with Patterson Hood. She has quite a story to tell & it’s great that she has the opportunity to tell it while making new music & memories.

 

 

The First Pop Songs In The World (Strength)

Here at loosehandlebars we have always appreciated an elite group of invited friends giving up their time & talent to contribute to the blog. It’s a delight to welcome Derry music legend, my great buddy, Paul Pj Mc Cartney, off of Bam Bam & the Calling, to these pages. Paul is going to put us on to one of his hometown’s hottest combos Strength. McCarts talks a lot of sense about a lot of things. Any time he wants to share something with us I’m sure that we will find a space for him.

 

I had a party in the house in late March 2010 to celebrate my 45th birthday, and some of the distinguished guests (arch-hooligans of the Derry Underground Music Community?) were late getting there because Strength were launching their double A-Sided single (on cassette) – ‘Do Televisions/Frankie Moore Ritual’ – in the Castle Bar on Waterloo Street. My good friend Sean Pemberton (he of Guadapenda Rosindale and Mars Field fame) brought me up a copy and it went straight into the stereo. I was automatically blown away, and knew I would have to get my ass along to their next show, and a few weeks later I witnessed their brave, beautiful and indeed confrontational music first hand and was smitten.

 

One thing I recall was seeing them not too long after that and remembering most of the songs from the first night and I think that’s a really telling thing. This was Strength Mark 1 – Rory Moore (vocals), John McLaughlin (synthesizer) and David McFeely (synthesizer). I think they played in the Castle about half a dozen times, and it was always an incredible experience that stayed with me for weeks after, and I was totally honoured when Rory invited me along to DJ twice. On a few of these occasions, when they finished a song, there was like a 3 or 4 second delay before the audience applauded. But that’s the magical and seductive whirlpool they draw you into when they play their fantastic songs, they take you on a trip Baby and the last thing you need is Drugs.

 

It’s not for someone like me to speculate on the actual influences the band have, they kinda keep that to themselves, just go out and let it loose. Their songs and their sound had me thinking of Scott Walker, The Young Marble Giants, Nick Cave, The Silver Apples, Suicide, the post-punk Dub excursions of Adrian Sherwood, Liquid Liquid and The Idiot era Iggy Pop. We are aware of their preference for vintage technology (Betamax videotapes are still on the agenda) , but they do it right and the sheer emotion they communicate when they play is nothing short of thrilling. And to the actual songs – the aforementioned ‘Do Televisions’ and ‘Frankie Moore Ritual’, ‘Disobedience’, ‘Hospital Beds And Drugs’, ‘I Like Compressions’, ‘Evil Part One’ and ‘Northern Ireland Yes’ are all totally different to each other , but form a whole, that has us lucky people looking down the barrel of one of the best Irish debut albums ever in my opinion.

 

 

I’m gonna cut to the chase and talk about the songs (in non-chronological order of course), here’s one that has transcended the line-up changes and they play and enjoy playing every night – ‘I Like Compressions’ – In effect, a regional hit, it made a chart of songs put together last year of songs released from bands and artistes from the North of Ireland. The difference here is that Strength didn’t actually put it out as a commercial release. The line-up playing in this video (and you’ve been introduced to Rory Moore already) is Conor McNamee, Neil Burns and Eoghan Doneghan, they are the current line-up. One thing this particular song shows also is that these guys can get pretty darn funky when the groove takes them, and there’s an added bonus here of a chorus you could park three-quarters of Iceland on, and you’ll be humming it for weeks after…as you do.

 

 

Next up, ‘Frankie Moore Ritual’, this was on the the cassette-only double A-Sided release from 2010, the other song being ‘Do Televisions’. They bring this one in at over 8  and a half minutes and it never dips as it goes, in fact, it’s all action start to finish. This one got me thinking of the Young Marble Giants when I first heard it, but also elements of early Orbital and the larky elements of the Stereolab EPs and Albums when Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas came on board. I would say that anyone who liked the ‘Turn On’ project Sean O’Hagan and Tim Gane put together in the late 1990’s will definitely dig this one. And you know the way some records end up opening up for a few minutes, and you think it’s an instrumental the whole way through and then a song happens, well this is one of them songs…don’t worry, I’m not giving away the plot.

 

 

“Northern Ireland Yes” is this year’s single. It’s another imaginative, hypnotic addition to their catalogue & deserved the wider attention that it received. The group are currently touring. This week, on the 7th of July, they are playing in Derry supported by our boys the Gatefolds. We need an LP of their tunes, in whatever retro-influenced format they choose. Keep an eye out for further news on their website. These guys are going from Strength to…(you see what I almost did there).

 

 

Put On A Iron Shirt (Max Romeo)

In June 1969 there was something missing when the BBC announced the new UK chart on a Sunday evening. At #10 “a record by Max Romeo” was referred to then on to the next. “Wet Dream”, a song about sleeping under a leaky roof (yeah right Max) was banned by the only British music station but Reggae was not only favoured by skinheads that summer. Desmond Dekker’s “It Mek” & Max’s early example of Jamaican slackness could be heard, mixed in with the Motown, wherever young people gathered to dance. “Wet Dream”, a combination of novelty, suggestiveness & a damn good tune, sold 250,000 copies & Max Romeo became known as a very Rude Boy.

 

 

There was no successful follow-up to the hit. With producer Bunny Lee Max tried more slackness but that novelty had passed. There were ill-judged cover versions from the middle of the road  (“Puppet on a String” !) while his own songs showed a growing concern with social issues & Rastafarian culture. “Let the Power Fall on I” was adopted by Michael Manley’s People’s National Party who campaigned & won an election in 1972 with policies including equal pay, a minimum wage & free education. Max liked the sound of that & wrote a number of songs promoting the PNP. They were an extension of previous conscious lyrics like “Rent Crisis” & “Black Equality”, sweet vocals setting out simple, direct & sincere sentiments. It’s difficult to resist a tune titled “Socialism Is Love”.

 

In the early 1970s Max Romeo worked mainly with Bunny Lee, Niney the Observer & Lee Perry with one-off recordings for other Kingston producers. The songs, with versions by men like Dennis Alcapone, (“Jordan River”), I Roy & King Tubby, are clear, attractive polemics, provocative & anticipating the coming “Rasta Bandwagon”. There are some gems to be found from this period. By 1975 the LP “Revelation Time”, a consistent, original collection, was only available in Jamaica. There were at least 10 single releases in 1975 & one of them stood above the rest.

 

 

“One Step Forward” was produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry who had engineered much of “Revelation Time”.  Scratch’s reputation is as a mad, stoned Dub alchemist but for this LP, “War Ina Babylon”, Max has said there was “a one hundred percent scrupulous function” in the studio. There was a deal with Island Records, a guaranteed international release for “War….” & the Romeo/Perry partnership stepped up to the mark. This is a more refined Reggae, house band the Upsetters providing sympathetic, confident rhythms to Max’s assertive lyrics. In 1976 the possibilities of Reggae LPs were being stretched by Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Vibration” & the debut records of his brothers from the original Wailers. In his backyard Black Ark studio Lee Perry’s work with the Heptones & Junior Murvin was a benchmark for a commercial, still conscious sound. “War Ina Babylon” sits just fine with both of these strands, An essential Reggae LP.

 

 

The alliance with Perry didn’t last nor did the good relations with Island. Max took care with his publishing business, the much-sampled “Chase the Devil” from “War…” proved to be a consistent earner. However the money & promises made by producer & record label were not forthcoming. 1977’s LP “Reconstruction” was self-produced but Island’s promotional priorities were geared towards making Bob Marley an international superstar. The late UK release of “Revelation Time” also deflected attention from his new material. It’s a pity that songs as good as “Melt Away” failed to consolidate the higher profile his great record had brought him.

 

 

Max Romeo left Jamaica for work in the US, continuing to record, perform & write those good songs. In 1981 the “Holding Out My Love To You” LP, an attempt to crossover into the American market, was co-produced by Keith Richards. After the notoriety of “Wet Dream” he established himself with a series of early Rasta, direct & melodic political songs which were often too candid for Jamaican radio stations. “War Ina Babylon” is his masterpiece, still sounding great 40 years on. It’s an entry point for some seriously good Reggae music.

 

 

 

More Broken Hearts And Prairie Soul (Daniel Romano)

OK. let’s get current. Today, May 27th, is the release date for “Mosey”, the 5th solo LP by Daniel Romano. Despite the antiquity (timelessness ?) of many of the tunes I feature here, I do listen to new music & not just as confirmation that the old music is better. The Underworld LP “Barbara Barbara We Face A Shining Future” will sit nicely on the shelf next to their 2 classic records of the mid-90s. Louie Vega’s Soulful House productions for Caron Wheeler & Cassio Ware are from the top rank. I would listen to that radio station playing Prince Rama’s contagious single “Bahia” on double heavy rotation. The only 2 tracks I had heard from “Mosey” got me handing over the hard-earned in the week before release. If there were other songs as good as “(Gone Is) All But A Quarry Of Stone” it was best that I had them around.

 

 

The last 3 LPs by Daniel Romano (I don’t know 2010’s “Workin’ For The Music Man”) have established his reputation as a consummate Country & Western stylist. His harder than a heartbreak lyrics, matched to recreations from Buck Owens’ Bakersfield honky tonk & the more countrypolitan Nashville of George Jones, are assured & affecting enough to ameliorate suspicions of mere revivalism. Elements of homage & pastiche, the sequinned country threads, are balanced by a respect for & an understanding of the structure & the sentiment of how these songs went.”Hard On You”, “There Are Lines On My Face” & others are retro-modern, distinct enough to have made an impression at any time since Hank done it his way. Romano called this music Mosey, a place he was “the King of…”. This new collection indicates that Mosey is a little further from Nashville than we thought.

 

The opener, “Valerie Leon”, is an uptempo theme to an imaginary Western, more Elmer Bernstein than Morricone, expansive orchestration, a touch of Tex-Mex but not the full mariachi. “I Had To Hide Your Poem In A Song” is a dramatic Blues. Romano is augmenting his Country music with other American roots influences, the result is looser, dramatic & surprising. The songs are still a catalogue of torment & tribulation, no longer limited by the strictures of his chosen genre they are heavy on atmosphere. The choruses are less obvious but still, when they come, captivating. Daniel Romano is a fine songwriter. I’m going to, like everyone else, check for Lee Hazlewood here. Romano’s baritone, Western fatalism with a dry humour & new palette does bring the master to mind. That’s some good company to keep.

 

 

For the album cover & the “(Gone Is)…” video Daniel has swapped sartorial dudeism for an Adidas shell suit & a Bob Dylan circa-66 ‘fro. The LP version replaces the strings with a churchy organ swirl & remains a bleak delight (I do like a lament). There has always been an element of performance art about his work. I found similarities in the early work of Lyle Lovett & Tom Waits. The sentimentality & archness of his chosen field was overridden by the quality of the records. The incongruous videos, gorilla suits & sci-fi animation, were more than winks that there was more to Mr Romano than his country gentleman affectations.This new character ? We will see if he hangs around. For myself the proof is in the hearing & I’m liking what I hear.

 

 

“Mosey” is a big change from Romano’s previous records. There was a tip off on “If I’ve Only One Time Askin” (2015) when “The One That Got Away (Came Back Today)” ended with an odd, almost psyche, guitar coda. There are more of these on “Mosey”. He may be ready to leave the Country but I’m not sure that all his fans will accept this shift towards a harder edge. Me, I’m an open-minded guy. If there are more songs as good as “Hunger Is A Dream You Die In”, with its backwards guitar, & the rocking closer “Dead Medium” to come then I’m happy to ride shotgun on the journey.

Original Channel One Rocker (Ossie Hibbert)

In 1975 the Hoo Kim brothers upgraded their Channel One studios on Mayfield Avenue, Kingston Jamaica from a 4-track operation to a big 16 tracks. They had splashed the cash on the technology & needed the talent to make their money back. They sent for Ossie Hibbert, keyboard player with the Aggrovators, house band for producer Bunny “Striker” Lee. Channel One hit the ground running with “Right Time” by the Mighty Diamonds. Sly Dunbar, their young drummer, had notions to experiment with & enhance the prevailing “flying cymbal” sound that Carlton “Santa” Davis had pioneered with the Aggrovators. The new, propulsive “Rockers” rhythm, influenced by disco, an assertive match for the militancy of Rasta lyrics, would carry the swing in Jamaican music for some time. There was a new studio house band around. The Revolutionaries made Channel One the place to be.

 

 

Ossie Hibbert learned a lot from Lee & from King Tubby, an electrical repairman who became the sonic mastermind behind Dub versions which attracted more attention than the original tracks. Ossie, as a musician, arranger, talent scout & trainee engineer, became indispensable to the studio’s operations. His first engineering job was on an instrumental version of Roy Richards’ “Freedom Train”. While he was at the controls Robbie Shakespeare, in the process of replacing Ranchie McLean as Sly Dunbar’s bass playing rhythm partner, provided the piano part. “MPLA” by the Revolutionaries became a big tune in 1976.

 

Jo Jo Hoo Kim got the production credits on these records, ownership of the means of production & all that. Musicians like Hibbert, Dunbar & Bobby Ellis, arranger & leader of a mighty horn section, were, at first, happy to have the work & to be creative. Ossie did release songs on his own labels & was involved with other producers. He was prolific enough to swap a couple of LPs with The Mighty Two (Joe Gibbs & Errol Thompson) for a car he admired. In 1977 Jo Jo’s brother Phil was shot & killed, understandably distressed he withdrew from the recording desk even leaving the island for a while. Ossie, with a seemingly limitless work ethic, stepped into the vacant producer’s seat.

 

 

Dillinger & I Roy

In that first 12 months at the new studio Jo Jo had overseen the release of the first Jamaican 12″ single. “Truly” by the Jays & Ranking Trevor is a mix of a great tune, sweet vocal harmonies, DJ lyrics & a Revolutionaries Dub version all on the same track. He also gave free range to Lester Bullock, a young DJ recording as Dillinger, to make an LP. The resulting “CB200”, smart contemporary wordplay matched to new rhythms, was the sound of the future for DJ toasters. The first wave of Roys & Youths, chatting over sound system favourites, became old school overnight. “Cocaine in my Brain” took the disco funk of “Do It Anyway You Wanna” by People’s Choice as the template for a distinctive modern sound giving the world a new way of spelling New York & Dillinger an international hit. The following year Ossie produced “Take A Dip” for the studio’s new star. It’s based on “Slave Master” by Gregory Isaacs. By the time the Revolutionaries are bubbling on their version of a version there’s a whole different thing going on & it’s a very good thing too.

 

 

Gregory Isaacs was a star in Jamaica before he came to Channel One. He recorded in all the studios with all the faces. Always his songs, often self-produced. Whether Gregory was inventing Lovers Rock or chanting down Babylon over an insistent, languid groove he did it with convincing, appealing style.”Mr Isaacs”, engineered & co-produced by Ossie, found the ideal mix of romantic & conscious lyrics. When the singer cooled it down the Revolutionaries kept it sweet. The percussive urgency of the rhythm section accented the times when things were more serious. Gregory recorded other tracks with Ossie. “Mr Know It All” became a 10 minute epic over 2 sides of a 12″ single. As much a showcase for Sly Dunbar as the singer this is state-of-the-art business, Gregory & the Revolutionaries at the top of their game. “Gregory Isaacs Meets Ronnie Davis” (1979) is a collection of tunes Ossie produced with both singers & it’s a winner. The brightness of each track is matched by rhythms that need no wheel & come again for the Dub diversion but seamlessly & logically flow into cool & deadly sonic subversion. Still one of the best Reggae LPs.

 

By the end of the 1970s the Revolutionaries were looking beyond the studio. Sly & Robbie toured with Peter Tosh then Black Uhuru while developing their own Taxi label & stable of artists. Gregory, always on top of new rhythms & with a growing eye on the international market, worked with the pair on the “Soon Forward” LP. For 1982’s “Night Nurse” there was a new generation of musicians & producers around. The Roots Radics, their rhythms for & from the Dancehall, provided the soundtrack for this sparse, less roots-based Reggae…another time.

 

Ossie produced “OK Fred”, a UK hit for Errol Dunkley. He continued his independent productions, working with too many artists to name. With the Aggrovators & the  Revolutionaries his organ shuffles & stabs played a part in the development of Reggae music. His studio expertise & his damned good taste ensured that the advanced recording techniques of Channel One captured a new sound loud & clear, retaining Reggae’s energy & innovation. That makes him a bit of a legend round our way.

Out In The Chicken Shack (Link Wray)

In 1958 Link Wray & his Ray Men hit big with their instrumental “Rumble“, an incendiary blast of amp-shredding distortion, feedback, vibrato & glissando, “the soundtrack to a knife fight” (Iggy Pop). Link’s guitar-as-a-deadly-weapon approach was influential & inspirational. Bob Dylan said “Rumble” was his favourite instrumental while, in the UK, teenage future guitar heroes Jimmy Page & Pete Townshend wanted to know if they could make this noise for themselves. Despite its Top 20 status Wray’s label Cadence would not release a follow up to “Rumble”, the record had been banned by some radio stations & owner Archie Bleyer wanted to distance himself from that moral panic of Juvenile Delinquency. Link moved to Epic where he continued to hit the spot while the label tried to steer him towards middle of the road guitar trudges through the hits of the day.

 

Swan Records, out of Philadelphia, had leased “She Loves You” from EMI in 1963. The record stiffed on release but sold a million when Beatlemania hit the USA the following year. While the label chased another hit they left Link Wray to himself, putting out whatever tracks he sent them. From the “Batman” theme to Dylan covers the Swan years produced some ferocious idiosyncratic music. The garage punk/blues racket of Willie Dixon’s “Hidden Charms” was only a B-side. The money ran out for Swan in 1967. Link, no longer current & considered a one hit wonder, had no label but did have a place to create & record his tunes. Link’s brother Ray had bought a 3 acre place in Accokeek Maryland. His “studio” setup was too loud for the basement so a former chicken coop became Wray’s Shack Three Track, a place where the band could kick back after gigging in the biker clubs of D.C. New tracks from the shack were released on the “Link Wray” LP in 1971 &, at first hearing, they seemed to be a long way from a Rock & Roll Rumble.

 

 

An Italian producer, Steve Verroca, took the tapes, over-sweetened the country ballads, was a little heavy on the gospel backing vocals & got the LP released on Polydor. The record is a tasty salmagundi of Link’s Southern Shawnee roots. There are some great songs &, while the guitar amp is not turned up to 11, the solos still sting. This may have been a change of direction but there is a keep it simple, Rock & Roll heartbeat which will get you in the end. The record’s range & maturity places it in some good contemporary company, Bobby Charles, JJ Cale, Leon Russell. When Link lets it fly there’s even a touch of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”. “Falling Rain” has been covered by the Neville Brothers, “Fire & Brimstone by Nick Cave, “Juke Box  Mama” has a swampy groove that Creedence Clearwater Revival would have loved to have hit. There’s more, it’s a top record.

 

There was a lot of material coming out of the shack. Later in 1971 “Mordicai Jones”, with vocals by Bobby Howard, featured more terrific guitar work by Link. These 2 LPs made little impact at the time but the rawness & passion has meant that they have aged very well. Discover them & you’ll never bother with the Black Crowes again. Link & brother Ray relocated to Arizona & for the next record Polydor got him out to San Francisco in a proper studio with a producer, a heavy guest list & everything.

 

 

“Be What You Want To” (1972) is a little over-produced by Thomas Jefferson Kaye (soon to be involved with Gene Clark’s “No Other”, a masterpiece). Link felt sidelined by the use of session men including Jerry Garcia & Commander Cody’s band. Again the songs are strong & Link’s individual voice, he had lost a lung to tuberculosis, ties the whole thing together.    While in the Bay Area Link hooked up with John Cipollina, formerly of Quicksilver Messenger Service. He borrowed the rhythm section from Cipollina’s current band Copperhead & played gigs with John as a guest. The title track of “Be What…” has heart & soul, this live version has a bite that’s missing from the record. Similarly “You Walked By”, recorded with a straight Country backing, becomes an expansive, Classic Rock epic when played onstage. It’s a good record but maybe Link should have been given more time to see just how those songs could go before recording them.

 

 

So the shack days were over but Mr Verroca had “kept” a bagful of tapes which he brought to Virgin Records, a new British label with a pile of “Tubular Bells” money & a shortage of material to release. “Beans & Fatback” (1973) is the real basic deal. Some of the tracks are unfinished jams but what it lacks in polish is covered by a raw, passionate immediacy. I’m not sure how the blistering “I’m So Glad, I’m So Proud” had missed the cut on the previous LPs because it’s as good a thing as a thing can get ! There were plenty of musicians chasing this blend of Country rhythm & Blues roots. The 3 Wray brothers & their shack mates had the loose energy that the Stones wanted on “Exile on Main Street”.    I don’t think that Link had much to do with the release of this album, Virgin kept him sweet by recording an LP in the UK in 1975. Whatever the circumstances “Beans & Fatback” is a terrific LP to have around.

 

 

Link was busy for the rest of the 1970s. A hook up with rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon produced 2 records & international tours. After meeting his 4th wife he moved to Denmark & was quiet for a decade. Inevitably his early recordings were compiled & re-released, using “Rumble” as the selling point, introducing a new audience to the wildest badass guitar music of its time. His deserved reputation is based on his instrumental ability. While die-hard Rock rebels may disagree, the music Link created when he got back to the shed at the bottom of the garden, his hippie years, endures as an outstanding example of a rock & roller going back to his roots, retaining the vigour & imagination that he started out with.The switchblade may have been put away but Link was never taking off his leather jacket.

 

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